Dr Michelle Ma is a Research Associate within the Department of Imaging Chemistry & Biology, King’s College London. Her work focuses on designing new pharmaceuticals that can help diagnose cancer. Michelle has been selected to be part of Soapbox Science, a public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. She will be standing on a soapbox on 30 May on the SouthBank between 2-5pm, where she’ll be talking about “Lighting up disease with new chemistry: whole body diagnostic imaging”.
This blog post was originally published on Soapbox Science website.
Soapbox Science encompasses many things that are stupendously exciting: breadth of science, sharing science, science communication and women in science. I’m excited about all of these things, because they are integral to what I do as an early career scientist. I’m a research chemist and my work focuses on designing new pharmaceuticals that can help diagnose cancer. Doing this work doesn’t just involve standing at a bench, mixing different chemicals in odd-shaped glassware. I need to be able to talk to doctors, pharmacists, physicists, biologists and other chemists, and we all need to be able to understand each other.
I first became interested in chemistry, and more broadly, science, at the age of twelve, when I first learned about molecular structure and how it defines the properties of all the things in my life – the air I breath, the desk I sit at, the chocolate I will invariably buy to accompany my lunch, the taste buds and nerve responses in my brain that allow me to appreciate aforementioned chocolate! Later in my schooling, my biology teacher described biological systems and mechanisms to the class in clear but intricate detail. DNA, proteins, evolution, ecosystems – all of this revealed a mesmerising world that was actually rooted in reason and hypothesis testing.
When I finished my high school in Australia, I began studying for my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Queensland where the wit and enthusiasm of my lecturers revealed the elegance of chemistry to me. I became enamoured with the multitude of colours typical of metal chemistry, and the role of metals in medicine. I undertook my PhD in chemistry at the University of Melbourne, researching how radioactive metals can help diagnose cancer. Essentially, my job was to design a molecule that would get the metal into a tumour. Once the radioactive metal is at the tumour site, the emitted light provides an image that tells doctors a tumour’s location and size and what stage the cancer is at. Such research provides doctors with diagnostic tools that help determine the most effective course of treatment for a cancer patient.
Upon completion of my PhD in Australia, I was awarded a travel fellowship to undertake research work overseas for two months. My current supervisor, Professor Phil Blower, had recently examined my PhD thesis and seemed really interested in my research, and so I elected to spend a couple of months in his laboratories at King’s College London. These particular laboratories are very well equipped for radiochemistry, and they are located at St Thomas’ Hospital, across the river Thames from Big Ben and Houses of Parliament. I was quite astonished to find myself undertaking research in a landmark location surrounded by such tremendous facilities! I enjoyed the work and the laboratory environment immensely and so I applied for fellowships to conduct my research at King’s College London on a more permanent basis. I was lucky enough to land a Newton Fellowship from the Royal Society and a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission that brought me back to King’s College London. I’m still working in the same area of chemistry – using radioactive metals to image cancer – and I’m still awed by the elegance and colourful aesthetics of chemical systems. For me, making hitherto non-existent, unknown molecules and then studying their unique properties is definitely the most enthralling aspect of chemical research. Waiting to see evidence of a new molecule flash up on a computer monitor is nerve-wracking, exciting and ultimately, when that bit of evidence does appear, absolutely exhilarating.
I’ve loved my time as a research career in chemistry to date, and I owe a great deal to supervisors, mentors and collaborators who have all inspired me thus far. All of these people are marvellously creative, astute and intelligent people, but there is one thing that bothers me – the overwhelming majority of these people (at least 90%) are men. Ultimately, I want it to be normal to attend a scientific conference and observe that the plenary speakers represent the diversity in the general population. Soapbox Science is lifting the profile and visibility of women in science, and such efforts are going to be seminal in addressing the gender imbalance and any persisting gender bias.